Putin’s Red Lines and War Aims Shift in Ukraine

From a Wall Street Journal story by Laurence Norman and Stephen Fidler headlined “Putin’s Red Lines, War Aims Shift in Ukraine”:

President Vladimir Putin‘s invasion of Ukraine has been punctuated by frequent Russian threats to escalate the war. Many have been later dialed down or ignored, leaving the U.S. and its allies guessing what the Russian leader’s real red lines are.

Russia’s repeated ultimatums and U-turns, along with its ever-shifting war aims, have reinforced the belief among Western government officials that Mr. Putin is being forced to improvise in a war that has slipped out of his control.

Western diplomats say nonetheless they must take what the Russian leader says seriously, including his suggestion that he would be prepared to use nuclear weapons. While officials believe a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine is very unlikely, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns traveled to Ankara this month to warn his Russian counterpart against it.

“There’s a degree of desperation now in the Putin behavior. Because he must know that it’s not going well on the battlefield and that he’s got to settle in for the long haul militarily,” said Michael Clarke, visiting professor in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.

Russia has scaled up its aggression against Ukraine. In recent weeks, it has pushed tens of thousands more troops toward the front lines and has launched repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure, especially Ukraine’s electricity network, plunging Kyiv and other cities into frequent darkness.

The goal, say military analysts, is to sap Ukrainian morale by freezing its population during the winter, further heighten the costs of Western support for Kyiv and show Russians that the war is being pursued aggressively.

One red line that has held on both sides has been largely unstated: That neither Russia nor the members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization want to directly engage the other side militarily.

Other Russian red lines have frequently proved to be illusory, and some of its most bellicose rhetoric has backfired. Mr. Putin warned on Sept. 21 that the Kremlin was prepared to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, saying Russia would use “all available means to protect Russia and our people.”

“This is not a bluff,” he said.

Moscow then accused Ukraine of working on a dirty bomb, a move Western officials said was intended as an excuse to escalate the conflict.

The threats, Western officials and analysts say, were aimed principally at sowing panic among Western publics about the war and thereby persuading their governments to stop backing Ukraine and to push for peace on Russia’s terms.

So far, it hasn’t affected Western support for Ukraine, which still appears solid.

Mr. Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling has drawn global condemnation, further isolating Russia diplomatically. President Biden warned Moscow it would be “an incredibly serious mistake” to use tactical nuclear weapons.

It culminated in Chinese President Xi Jinping‘s first public rebuke of the Kremlin’s conduct of the war as he warned against anyone using or threatening to use nuclear weapons in the conflict.

By late October, the Kremlin was backpedaling, with Mr. Putin using a long television interview to say Russia had no plans to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, comments echoed by Russian diplomats worldwide.

Western analysts say the use of battlefield nuclear weapons would do little to advance Russia’s military cause and would risk drawing the U.S. and its allies deeper into the war. Breaking the nuclear taboo, which has held since 1945, would also draw further international isolation and condemnation for Moscow.

“I think that kind of escalation wouldn’t be beneficial to Russia” under current circumstances, said Christopher Yeaw, a specialist in nuclear deterrence at the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska.

Those tactical missteps have been repeated elsewhere. Following a Ukrainian attack on Russia’s Black Sea fleet last month, Moscow said it was withdrawing from the international grain deal that had helped improve global food security by permitting Ukrainian grain to reach developing countries.

The transport of grain continued, essentially challenging Russia to sink a civilian vessel, and the Kremlin backed away, saying within 72 hours that it would rejoin the agreement. Western officials say that if Moscow were determined to topple the grain deal, it could likely succeed since Western companies would at some point stop insuring ships that could come under attack.

Earlier this month, Russia agreed to roll over the grain deal for an additional 120 days. In another U-turn, Moscow dropped its conditions for extending the deal, demanding a relaxation of Western sanctions and the reopening of a Ukrainian pipeline allowing Russian ammonia to be exported to the Black Sea.

Meanwhile, Mr. Putin’s warning at the end of September that attacks on Ukrainian territories that Russia has claimed to annex would be considered aggression against Russia have looked increasingly hollow.

While Russia’s escalation of its attacks against civilian targets in Ukraine followed the partial destruction of the Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland, Ukraine’s capture of the supposedly annexed city of Kherson earlier this month underscored the gap between the Kremlin’s threats and its actions.

Previous probable Ukrainian attacks against Russia proper, including the city of Belgorod, have also been played down by Moscow.

Ukrainian success on the battlefield has forced Moscow to shift its war objectives. Having started with the aim of “denazifying” the Ukrainian leadership, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week that Russia isn’t seeking regime change in Kyiv.

King’s College’s Mr. Clarke says Russia’s stated war objectives have gone through several phases. Military victory is now hard to envision and the Russian war aim “boils down to carrying on the war in such a way that they don’t lose, and then just play for time.”

Western diplomats and officials say Mr. Putin’s behavior points to the confusion inherent in Russia’s invasion, its failure to anticipate that it would be drawn into a long conflict and its growing panic at a series of military reverses.

Others say the constant threats from the Kremlin may at least serve Russia in one short-term way: to constantly distract attention away from its poor performance on the battlefield, its economic troubles, Russia’s increasing diplomatic isolation and the basic facts of its brutal invasion of Ukraine.

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